Rural areas carry a sense of freedom that’s distinct from the city life. People typically move to the outskirts to get away from urban environments where curtains and walls somehow seem useless. The rural landscape offers a lot more opportunities for privacy than a New York walkup, but there are also downsides that have largely gone unnoticed.
Recently-published research by the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Marc Levin and Michael Haugen spotlights high rates of incarceration for pretrial defendants in rural jails. The authors point to a number of contributing factors and offer solutions that could safely reduce pretrial incarceration. Recommendations include reducing the number of offenses that carry the potential for arrest and jail time, expanding the use of police diversion, and utilizing pretrial actuarial risk assessments.
“Our research shows that rural pretrial incarceration has grown more than 400 percent since 1970,” said Levin. “Possible reasons include the epidemic of opioids and other drugs, the inability of many defendants to afford high bail amounts, the reluctance of judges to release defendants on their own recognizance, and the lack of accessible treatment alternatives.”
The lack of alternative resources in rural areas is a simple summary of why pretrial incarceration has grown so expansively over the years. For example, rural law enforcement officers rarely have access to pre-booking diversion programs as pioneered in Seattle (and since expanded elsewhere). Ergo, they end up arresting people for various low-level crimes for which ‘folks in larger cities might be diverted from the traditional criminal justice system entirely or receive citations. Many judges that preside over these same rural areas also lack pretrial risk-assessment tools to help them determine who ought to remain in lock up and who could be safely released and supervised while in the community as they wait for their court date. In Harris County, Texas, defendants released on pretrial supervision actually had the lowest recidivism rates in comparison to those who were detained pretrial and later released. As Levin explains, “research has found that for all but the highest-risk defendants pretrial incarceration actually increases the odds of re-arrest.”
Pretrial incarceration is not helping public safety or taxpayers’ pocket books. If current pretrial jail populations were to remain constant throughout the year, Texans alone will spend more than $914 million to house them. Lawmakers should consider Levin and Haugen’s recommendations to safely reduce rural pretrial incarceration and ensure it’s rural communities, not rural jails, that are growing in size. After all, this is The Land of The Free.